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Authors: Marilyn Clay

Tags: #London Season, #Marilyn Clay, #Regency England, #Chester England, #Regency Romance Novels

BRIGHTON BEAUTY (26 page)

BOOK: BRIGHTON BEAUTY
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The tense look on Mr. Merribone's face instantly dissolved. "You may start today. Miss Grant. Indeed, it is good to have you back in London, Miss Grant."

Chelsea held up a hand. "I shall return to work for you on one condition, Mr. Merribone."

"You've only to name it, Miss Grant!"

"I must have your word that under no circumstances will you ever again allow me to take tea with a customer. I insist on remaining at my post the entire day, Mr. Merribone. If a customer requests to see me, or my designs, she shall have to view them right here in the shop. I insist on it, Mr. Merribone! I insist on it!" she concluded fervently.

"Very well, Miss Grant. I shall institute the new policy at once."

Chelsea smiled broadly, then removed her own bonnet and set to work.

* * * *

T
wo weeks later, on a particularly gloomy Tuesday afternoon, Chelsea had just finished stitching a bunch of bright red cherries to the brim of a Minerva, and was carrying the pretty confection to the front of the shop, when she chanced to overhear a snatch of conversation between two Quality customers, who were passing the time in idle gossip while they browsed in the shop.

"I have it on good authority," one of the women declared, as she set the
Angouleme
that Chelsea had decorated only that morning atop her light brown hair, "that the little hoyden eloped with that actor friend of hers!"

Chelsea halted dead in her tracks.

"No-o!" the second lady exclaimed, her mouth agape with delicious interest. "But can you be certain of it, Lydia?"

The first woman smiled smugly. "Word came straight from Lady Anne. She and her brother, Lord Weymouth, actually spent time at the castle."

Chelsea's heart began to pound feverishly in her breast. She edged closer to the women, pretending to have urgent business in that corner of the shop.

"Rumor has it that Mr. Kean turned them out of his company, and now the pair of them are getting up a troupe of actors of their own and are planning to travel about the countryside like a band of Gypsies." The woman's lips pursed with scorn.

"Why, I can hardly fathom the like!" her friend declared.

The first woman untied the pink ribbons of the
Angouleme,
lifted it from her head and reached for a blue silk Babet.

"That looks divine with your coloring, Lydia," her companion said, then in the same breath, asked, "but, how will they get on? I hear the gentleman hasn't a feather to fly with."

"Does now." Lydia preened in front of the glass. "Lady Anne said A. M.'s cousin, who, according to Lady Anne, is a frightfully disagreeable chap, settled quite a generous allowance on the girl. Word is, the cousin was buying her off. Seems the two were once betrothed and he was outraged to learn that the . . . " her tone became almost inaudible " . . .
lovers
had spent upwards of a fortnight together!"

"Oh, my stars!" The second lady's eyes widened. "And to think my Penelope attended Miss Marchmont's come-out ball! Oh, dear me!" She clapped a hand over her mouth. "I did not mean to utter the young lady's name aloud!"

"Pishaw! Everyone knows who she is."

Having each selected new bonnets, the women sailed past a dazed Chelsea. "If the hoyden has a shred of decency left in her," added Lydia, "she will never show her face in this city again!"

* * * *

T
hat night, Chelsea hardly slept a wink for thinking about what she'd overheard in the shop that day. If Alayna had indeed married Mr. Hill, did that mean Lord Rathbone had returned to Honduras as he had threatened to do, un-legshackled to anyone? Or was it possible he might still be in England?

Chelsea's pulse quickened at the thought.

If Ford were still in Britain, was it possible he might come to London, perhaps to testify at Sully's trial, which from an account Chelsea had read of it in
The Times,
was set to begin soon. Or, perhaps, he'd be coming to London to address Parliament. She knew he meant to present his petition on behalf of the planters before he left England. Would he try to find her if he came? She had told Lady Rathbone about her employer, Mr. Merribone. Would Lady Rathbone tell him? Oh, she sighed sadly, there were so many questions, so few answers.

For the next several days, she spent an inordinate amount of time in the front part of the millinery shop, gazing from the plate glass window, her heart lodged in her throat as she strained for a glimpse of . . . what? Then, feeling guilty for shirking her duties, she would throw herself headlong into her work once again. Apparently word had got out amongst the
ton
that she had returned to London, and was once again designing bonnets for Mr. Merribone, for the shop had been doing a brisk business. And while she did enjoy the few moments she was able to focus fully on a new design, or enjoy a particularly pleasing result, the free feeling never lasted beyond a few minutes, then the breathless longing would settle about her again.

Thoughts of Lord Rathbone were never far from her mind. Despite the memory of those last awful moments with him on the balcony, she missed the gentleman fiercely. She knew he had only behaved as he did that night out of anger. He had not meant to hurt her. Beneath his wounded pride, Lord Rathbone was first, last and always, a gentleman.

As Chelsea walked to and from work those next few days, she found herself gazing overlong at every gentleman whose path she crossed, at every carriage that clattered by on the cobblestone street. Upon reaching the shop door every morning, her eyes already felt blanched from having searched so diligently for Lord Rathbone's handsome face.

When that long week had dragged nearly to a close, she was about to give up. If the gentleman were in London, he did not mean to see her. Otherwise, he would have already come.

Late that afternoon, Chelsea was seated in the workroom of the shop, just beginning the task of securing a pink satin rosebud to the crown of an Oatland Village bonnet, when she heard an unusual sound coming from the front of the shop.

A gentleman's voice. Other than that of Mr. Merribone, a masculine tone was not a common occurrence in a millinery establishment.

Recognizing this deep timbre, Chelsea's heart skipped a beat. Unnoticed, the pink satin rosebud slipped from her fingers to the floor.

When she heard Mr. Merribone ask the gentleman if he was looking for something for his wife, Chelsea's hand stole upward to the golden locket clasped around her neck. Straining to hear Lord Rathbone's reply, her fingers curled tightly about the warm, heart-shaped metal.

"I am not a married man, Mr. Merribone," she heard the gentleman say. "I have come to inquire if you know the whereabouts of a Miss Chelsea Grant?"

Chelsea's heart stood still.

"Indeed, I do, sir. Miss Grant is my chief designer," he said proudly. "Would you care to meet the young lady, sir?"

"Is she here now?" Lord Rathbone asked, his tone sounding quite anxious.

Her pulse pounding in her ears, Chelsea did not wait for Mr. Merribone to summon her. Springing to her feet, she flew through the curtained partition into the display area of the shop. Lord Rathbone's tall, elegantly attired form seemed to dwarf the tiny enclosure. A tremulous smile skittered across Chelsea's face.

"Lord Rathbone," she murmured, "I thought I recognized your voice. How lovely to see you again, sir."

"Miss Grant." Liquid brown eyes found hers and held the gaze.

Pinned beneath the look, Chelsea found it difficult to speak. "H-how is Lady Rathbone getting on, sir? Well, I hope."

"Very well, thank you. She misses you frightfully." He paused, then said quietly, "As do I."

Chelsea felt her heart lurch fitfully to her throat. Though there were so many things she wished to say to him . . . that she missed him fiercely, that she loved him beyond all reason . . . she knew she could not speak.

The moment of strained silence between them grew.

At length Lord Rathbone cast a gaze about, his eyes taking in the feathers and frippery. A few customers were browsing in the shop . . . a matronly looking woman and a young lady. Strangely enough, they both seemed more engrossed in the small drama unfolding before them than the prettily decorated bonnets scattered about.

Chelsea was also sharply aware of Mr. Merribone still hovering close by, taking in every word that she and Lord Rathbone had uttered. "Did . . . business bring you to Town, sir?" she finally managed.

"Indeed," Lord Rathbone replied. "I arrived only this morning and went straight to the House."

Chelsea gazed at him expectantly. "Parliament?"

He nodded.

"And you presented your petition?"

Rathbone nodded again.

"I expect it was well received."

"Indeed, it was."

Chelsea smiled broadly. "That is wonderful news, sir."

"Yes . . . it is . . . ah, is there, perhaps . . .?" He appeared to be quite uncomfortable, his eyes casting about for a bit of privacy, perhaps? Suddenly, he said, "Perhaps, I could persuade you to take tea with me this afternoon, Miss Grant. It is close on tea time now." He turned toward her employer. "I shall return her to you promptly in an hour, sir."

Mr. Merribone was already shaking his head. "I am sorry, your lordship. Miss Grant is not permitted to leave her post."

Chelsea turned wide eyes on her employer. "Mr. Merribone . . . "

"Out of the question!" Mr. Merribone was adamant. "You will return to the work bench at once, Miss Grant."

Staring aghast at the man, Chelsea stood fixed in place.

"Perhaps I could call again later," Lord Rathbone suggested. "When will Miss Grant be free, Mr. Merribone?"

"Six of the clock would suit nicely, my lord."

"Now
would suit better, Mr. Merribone," Chelsea retorted, oblivious to the tittering sound her answer elicited from the two women in the shop, who were still vastly interested in the proceedings. "Suddenly, I feel quite parched," Chelsea declared, fixing what she hoped was a speaking look on her employer. "A cup of tea would be the very thing to restore me. I shall just go and get my bonnet, Lord Rathbone." With that, she swept past a dazed Mr. Merribone and disappeared into the workroom.

Lord Rathbone's lips were still twitching when she reappeared, hurriedly tying the green grosgrain ribbons of her flat chip bonnet beneath her chin. With a final nod to Mr. Merribone, she took the arm Lord Rathbone offered and together they exited the shop.

"Do you always take such command of a situation, Miss Grant?" he asked, guiding her through the crush of people promenading on the busy flagway and toward the black lacquered coach parked at the curb.

"Not generally." Chelsea smiled up at him. "Though I must say I firmly believe now that being honest and straightforward is the best policy."

"I see. It appears we are once again of the same mind, Miss Grant." He handed her into the closed carriage, then climbed in and settled himself beside her. "To that end," he gazed into her upturned face, "may I say straight out that I am deeply sorry for my shocking want of conduct that last evening we were together at the castle. I regret that my . . . ahem, wounded pride and my anger . . . caused me to behave in such a deplorable fashion toward you. Might you forgive me, Miss Grant?"

The smile on Chelsea's face was warm. "I have already forgiven you, my lord. But have you forgiven me for my part in the unconscionable trick Alayna and I played on you?"

"Indeed I have." His dark eyes locked with hers, then he smiled. "Well, then, what would you like to do now, Miss Grant? I admit, I know very little about London." He glanced out the window. "Is there a tea-room nearby, or . . .?"

"I should like to marry you, my lord."

Rathbone's dark head jerked 'round. "So that is how it is, is it?" His lips began to twitch once more, greatly delighting Chelsea, whose boldness had surprised even herself. "As it happens. Miss Grant," he went on, "I came to London for the express purpose of asking you to marry me."

"I thought you had business in Town," Chelsea countered.

"Making you my bride
is
my business." His tone was both sincere and affectionate.

But, suddenly, Chelsea's eyes clouded over.

"What is it, my dear? Do you not wish to marry me?"

"I . . . there is something I must tell you, sir. Something that. . ." she lowered her gaze, "perhaps you will not wish to marry me, afterward," she concluded quietly.

"I can think of nothing that would cause me to change face on that head, Miss Grant."

"Nonetheless, I must tell you, sir. I shall not be guilty of deceiving you a second time."

"Deceiving me?"

Lord Rathbone's brow's pulled together as Chelsea, in measured tones, told him all about the ugly rumor that had circulated in Brighton regarding her famous Grandfather Andover and Miss Farringdon at the academy.

"Ah, I see. And I take it that is the frightful scandal which that silly woman at the ball was alluding to?"

Chelsea nodded.

"And I expect my cousin Alayna has been doing her part to keep the rumor alive. Is that the case, Miss Grant?" He did not wait for a reply. "I suspect that is also how she persuaded you to assist her in deceiving me, is it not?"

Chelsea did not answer. She merely lowered her lashes. "If you do not wish to marry me, sir, I shall understand."

With a gloved hand, he reached to gently lift her chin upward. "Of course I still wish to marry you, you little minx. Whatever might have happened half a century ago between your grandpapa and his ladylove makes not a whit of difference to me. I assure you, no scandal, not so much as a hint of one, will follow us across the sea." His voice became a whisper. "You will always be safe with me, Miss Grant."

Chelsea's brown eyes brimmed with happy tears. "In that case, sir, my answer is yes."

Rathbone feigned surprise. "Fancy that. I was about to give your proposal the exact same answer."

Chelsea laughed aloud. "Indeed, we are of the same mind, sir. I predict we shall get on quite well together as man and wife."

Lord Rathbone leaned toward her. Chelsea knew he meant to kiss her, but instead of giving him leave to do so, she held up a hand to halt the action. "There is something else I should like to ask of you, sir," she said.

BOOK: BRIGHTON BEAUTY
6.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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